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Dealing with controversial intangible cultural heritage

Not just the children get excited when Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) arrives each year.The status of Saint Nicholas’ companion Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) is discussed by grown ups time and time again. In a multicultural society Black Peter shouldn’t have a stereotypical role as servant or helper of the Saint anymore, it is argued. Black Peter’s role is resented by many, it is supposed. This classifies the Saint Nicholas celebrations as controversial heritage. The question is if they can be put on the UNESCO Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. I want to discuss this issue from a broad perspective and will discuss the question how to deal with examples of heritage that for one segment of the population are closely related to its identity, but are considered painful to others. My general question is: how should be dealt with controversial heritage? And a related question is: how can the UNESCO convention of intangible cultural heritage be helpful in this topic?

During my work at the Dutch Centre for Popular Culture and Intangbile Heritage I notice that a lot of seemingly innocent folkloristic traditions have become controversial over time. The example of Black Peter is maybe the most widely known. According to critics Black Peter is not acceptable anymore, because his role is stereotypical for a slavish approach to blacks, that legitimizes the old colonial relations between white and black people.

Sensibilities of the multicultural society

The question where this politicization comes from, is not easy to answer. In a multi-ethnic society, where many ethnic groups live together in a more and more globalizing World, a situation emerged that various groups attach different meanings to their own traditions, and to those of others. As the English heritage expert Laurajane Smith rightfully remarks, in an influential collection of essays on Intangible heritage, experiencing intangible heritage has become part of the dilemma’s of the modern multicultural society. Different meanings are attached to traditions which are diametrically opposed and these discussions are held on the razor’s edge.[iv]

In the nineteenth century, when Black Peter appeared for the first time, the situation was completely different. There were hardly any black people in the Dutch society. This turned Black Peter into an exotic figure and that was exactly the intention, just as Saint Nicholas is exotic: no other bishop walking the streets was dressed in a striking red robe, a mitre and a staff. In other words, the exotic was part of the attractions of the festivities, like there still are children who think it’s funny to dress like Saint Nicholas or Black Peter. That’s all there is to it, it appears.

Never innocent

The Saint Nicholas festivities have a similar- problematic – history. Our current Saint Nicholas festivities were created during a time of controversy. During the Middle Ages the festivities were predominantly a religious holiday, a anniversary of the Saints. This changed during the sixteenth century with the rise of calvinism. According to the calvinist beliefs the Saint Nicholas festivities were no longer acceptable because they had to do with a saint and were part of the loathed Catholic rummage. The Protestant authorities tried to end the festivities, e.g. by prohibiting the popular Saint Nicholas markets. Saint Nicholas became a secular celebration, stripped from al its churchbased paraphernalia. It became a children’s gift -giving celebration in the domestic environment. But some elements of the controversy between Catholics and Protestants remained, even in the twentieth century. Protestants preferred appearances of Saint Nicholas with a mitre without a cross. The Amsterdam version of the Saint has a mitre with three crosses, the Amsterdam city arms, to make the festivities appropriate for Amsterdam muslims. This created a new controversy. It was discussed in parliament. The question was: who should adapt to whom? Even now Saint Nicholas reflects contemporary tensions in modern society. It turns the Saint Nicholas festivities into living heritage.

My position is that traditions are never innocent. Sometimes they have a release function. In other cases they function as a exclusion ritual, with a political meaning. The examples of Saint Nicholas and Guy Fawkes show that it is quite difficult to separate both traditions from the past in which they were created. Both examples show that traditions reflect societal controversies and tensions. Possibly it is a characteristic of complex processes of identity formation.[v] The controversial elements can not simply be cut from both traditions. They belong to the tradition as long as there are societal tensions.

The Vienna opera ball

How politicized the confronting opinions can be, another example, namely the Vienna opera ball season shows that the Viennao opera ball season is traditionally held in the carnival period and was accepted to the Austrian inventory of intangible cultural heritage. The Vienna opera ball season consists of seventeen different balls, including the ‘Kaiserball’ (the emperor’s ball) and the so-called ‘Ball der Offiziere’ (the ball of the officers), which always is organized by the Austrian army. One of the seventeen balls, the so called ’Korporations-Ball ’ (the corporation ball) was controversial because it supposedly was an affair of extreme rightwing students, with racist motives, according to some. The protests were that much influential that the Vienna opera ball (for the time being) has been totally removed from the Austrian UNESCO list.[vi]

This example shows that the question what roleUNESCO should play a role in this kind of issues is important. According to me UNESCO should have a role, but not as ‘police officer’. When the Vienna opera ball was removed from the UNESCO list, this created another controversy, in which UNESCO was attacked. Some journalists wrote about a ‘disgraceful anti-democratic attitude and terror in the field of opinions’, a typical example of ‘extreme left mobbing’, in which UNESCO was following the opinions of the ‘leftwing church.’[vii] A similar politcized debate could follow in the Netherlands, if Black Peter is admitted to the Dutch Inventory. This is not the right direction of the debate, I think. A restrained discussion and objectivation seems to be more appropriate, because in that way the controversy doesn’t get out of hand.

As the example of the Vienna opera ball season shows, some caution is appropriate, in which top-down interference can be counter- productive. A role for UNESCO as a ‘police officer’ is not a good solution, possibly with the exception of issues which concern the mutilation of the human body. Generally the communities themselves should decide, in close communication. But UNESCO can play a role in process of objectification of the opposite views, in the process of ‘negotiating identities’. For the nominations for the intangible cultural heritage list UNESCO asks to map all the heritage in the context of the historical dynamics. Also the sticking points which obstruct transmission of heritage to next generations, should be outlined. This asks for some reflection which can contribute to establish a discussion in less stormy waters.

The role of UNESCO isn’t just illusionary. For instance the Saint Nicholas Association is alrady discussing the question if it wouldn’t be better to give Black Peter a somewhat different role, to make a nomination for the UNESCO list possible with less controversy. This shows that the UNESCO convention is already influential. Instead of top-down restrictions I prefer that communities think about the issues themselves. The UNESCO convention offers an ideal negotiating tool, with which communities could get along well.[viii] The right of communities to give their own interpretation in a whatever way that they wish, is the main concern. That is the starting point of the UNESCO convention, which focuses on the safeguarding of cultural diversity. We shouldn’t decide on the abolishment of other people’s heritage. But communities should realize that their intangible cultural heritage is experienced by other groups too. One should always pay attention to the wishes of others. In this, it should be stated, respect should not be shown by one party only. There always should be mutual respect for the opinions, values and sensitivities of others.

Albert van der Zeijden

In: Immaterieel Erfgoed nummer 2 (2012) 

[i] For a general discussion, see, John Helsloot,, ‘Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands’, in: Quotidian 3 (2012), 3, Helsloot earlier discussed the history of the debate about Black Peter in his article: ‘Het feest. De strijd om Zwarte Piet’, in: Isabel Hoving (ed.), Cultuur en migratie in Nederland. Veranderingen in het alledaagse (The Hague 2005) 249-271.

[ii] See: D.F. Ruggles and H. Silverman, ‘From tangible to intangible heritage’, in: D. Fairchild Ruggles and Helaine Silverman (eds), Intangible heritage embodied (Dordrecht 2009) 1-14, 2. Ruggles and Silverman also mention the practice of female footbinding in some Chinese traditions, to make the feet as small as possible. They also mention neck rings in Thailand, meant to create the appearance that the neck has been stretched. But these examples are not hot topics in Western European society.

[iii] Harriet Deacon and others, The subtle power of intangible heritage. Legal and Financial instruments for safeguarding intangbile heritage (Cape Town 2004) 40-41.

[iv] Laurajane Smith and Natsuko Akagawa, ‘Introduction’, in: idem (eds), Intangible Heritage (London 2009) 5. For a more extensive discussion see: Helaine Silverman (ed.), Contested cultural heritage. Religion, nationalism, erasure and exclusion in a global world (New York 2011). Also see: Laurajane Smith, The uses of heritage (London 2006) on dissonant heritage: 80-82.

[v] As Laurajane Smith stated, intangible cultural heritage is a process in which ‘memories and experiences are mediated, evaluated and worked out.’, Laurajane Smith, ‘Empty gestures? Heritage and the politics of recoginiton’, in Helaine Sivlerman & D. Fairchild Ruggles (eds), Cultural heritage and human rights (New York 2007), 159-171, 165.

[vi] Thanks to Sophie Elpers, who made me aware of this issue. For the political controversies see the German language Wikipeda: Last checked on 18 March 2012.

[vii] For the news item on the internet see: ‘Wiener Ball kein Kulturerbe mehr.’, http://wien.orf.aut/new/stories/2517678/. Last checked on 17 March 2012.

[viii] Also see LauraJane Smith, who argues in the same way: Smith, ‘Empty gestures?’, 165.


Sinterklaas in the Netherlands: a beleaguered tradition

The Sinterklaas celebration is not only the most popular Dutch tradition. From the very moment that people began to criticise Zwarte Piet it has been the most hotly debated tradition, throughout the whole year. In 2013 the debate reached boiling-point and the foreign press reported about it in detail. The Kenniscentrum Immaterieel Erfgoed Nederland (Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, received many questions, from the Netherlands and abroad, about the Sinterklaas celebration itself and – more to the point – on the role of Zwarte Piet in this tradition. Other questions concentrated on the discussion and why this is such a sensitive topic in the Netherlands. In this publication the most important facts are featured in brief.

 Saint Nicolas is a popular saint throughout Europe. But how did his feast evolve to a popular family celebration, for which children have been putting their shoe before the stove already from the sixteenth century? How did the feast develop in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century? When was it that Zwarte Piet was introduced in the tradition and did he look like we know him now back then? The background of the current discussion is sketched as well.  When did the debate on Zwarte Piet start and which are the principal objections of the critics? The book concludes with the most important results of an exploratory investigation the Dutch Centre for ICH commissioned among the people who are involved and their views on a future-proof Sinterklaas celebration. What is their attitude towards possible changes? Is there still a future for the celebration of Sinterklaas?

Albert van der Zeijden and Ineke Strouken, Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, a beleaguered tradition (Utrecht 2014)

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